What I Learned Working a Summer Job at Buckingham Palace
A heady summer of stiff uniforms, weak-bladdered tourists and getting bored of the sight of that bloody throne.
Summer jobs are shit when you're young. Either you work at a provincial supermarket, getting paid £8 a month to stack endless Loyd Grossman jars and blow it all on a few Friday night tequila shots, or you wait tables at a Harvester, taking lukewarm plates of gravy 'n' food from kitchen to table and occasionally getting tipped with a shiny pound coin. Those are the only two options, both horrible.
Not working is even worse, though. Months of unfettered freedom are spent marking time, watching Friends re-runs and playing Championship Manager, till you're obliged to go back to education. Such are the heady days of your youth.
One summer several years ago, I thought, fuck that! and followed a chance advert for a job at Buckingham Palace. Not for anything important, like King: it was to be a Warden, one of the 300 dogsbodies employed from July to September, serving the slavering Queen Lizzie-loving punters when a small section of Buckingham Palace opens its doors each summer.
Here's what it was like working at the world's most renowned royal home, dealing with feckless tourists, driving golf buggies round the grounds and getting off our tits after (and sometimes at) work.
PASSING THE INTERVIEW
The hardest part of the "Bucky Pally" interview process is being expected to recount genuine instances of customer service, because the breadth of most people's experience at this point in their life extends to mastering the speedy refill at Yates's Wine Lodge.
Here's a tip: I didn't mention that I was a staunch republican. You don't go to an Amazon job interview and say Jeff Bezos is a dick who ought to pay taxes (historically a rather grey area for Her Royal Highness, too) or that Netflix dicks on Prime. You just say something along the lines of, "My corporate morals are good, and I really like packing things." Done.
YOU DRESS LIKE A DOUCHE ALL SUMMER
Any preconceptions of looking like a spunky, medallion-wearing Prince William are dispelled, rather swiftly, by the outfit fitting. The starchy navy uniform makes everyone walk around like they're breathing through their belly button – a bit like Shane Warne post-Liz Hurley makeover. You've got a name tag, too, so tourists can mispronounce your name when posing their inane, drivelling questions.
Everyone is assigned to a section; this decides which cliques you hang out in all summer. There are ones like security, audio guides, the garden, ticket sales and the shop: all different but similarly menial, chipping away at the soul without ever quite destroying it. You may be working at Buckingham Palace, but it's essentially customer service on a grand scale. You can't go wrong, either –wherever you're put, you'll find like-minded students up for a good bloody laugh.
PARTYING LIKE A PRINCE
It was summer in central London, I was young and surrounded by like-minded, naïve, attractive people, desperate for validation and VKs. Not quite everyone was my friend, but they sure as hell would be after we'd shared that big bottle of White Lightning in St James Park and I'd lied about how much I liked Dizzee Rascal.
The nights were a blur of pubs, clubs and house parties, always with far too many people crammed into beds or bouncy castles. Always with the bouncy castles. Employees get off with one other, strangers, even the occasional inanimate object. Sometimes it feels like you're at a week-long drunken sleepover, punctuated by shifts at the world's most famous palace.
If those visitors knew how close some guides were to vomiting Exorcist-style on priceless art the next morning, they'd shriek into their pendulous bumbags. But then I'm sure the Queen has had days where she wanted to stay in bed with fuzzy gin head, watching Alan Partridge and eating Pop Tarts or Heinz beans and sausages cold from the tin, rather than having to receive the President of Uganda. Right?
YOU DON'T ACTUALLY MEET THE QUEEN
One day, a little girl ran up to me and squealed, "I saw the Queen! She waved at me!" Cute. But she was lying through her tiny, underdeveloped milk teeth.
You won't see ickle Prince George, Kate or William either: Queenie and the fam usually go off to the summer residence at Balmoral long before this annual tourism apocalypse starts. If thousands of people went round your house, surreptitiously fingering your possessions, looking at your old clothes and taking selfies in your living room, you'd be long gone (and calling the police) as well.
Probably for the best, though. Imagine Prince Phillip around the ethnic employees ("Golly, that's an interesting accent!"). Buckingham Palace's HR team can only process so many complaints.
YOU END UP HATING PEOPLE
There's people everywhere. So many people. 400,000 punters visit the palace over the two-month opening period. This is Disneyland for militant monarchists.
One day a week, you're off the regular section and assigned to the main Buckingham Palace State Rooms beat, watching the merry, gasping masses shuffle through. Stood behind the red ropes, you have the dubious power of answering their questions and radioing for permission if they really need to use the secret toilet. You're basically a glorified primary school supply teacher, policing people's bladders and colons.
It's hard to be earnest after repeating the same directions to slack-jawed visitors a thousand times a day, though. Soon, you develop your own anxiety trigger: mine was an American accent saying, "Excuse me, Sir" – grating, obnoxious and wafting strongly out of the throng like a potent fart. Whatever the comment, I ground my teeth, grinned and answered it politely. You just have to stand there and think of the money.
IT PAYS WELL FOR A STUDENT JOB
£7 an hour might not sound like much, but bear in mind the long hours, generous overtime and the era: this was several years ago. To a 19-year-old, this was wild riches. Never mind that half of it got blown at the local Wetherspoons. Curry Clubs all round! The jalfrezi is on Liz!
YOU GET IMMUNE TO SPLENDOUR
Caravaggio there, Vermeer here, Canova statues everywhere: Brian Sewell would have a screaming artgasm. The state rooms are like a rococo IKEA: once a tourist is through one section, they can't turn back. The difference is that nobody can afford a single chair here.
Bravo to the Royal Family for stealing and borrowing – gotta love playing imperial finders keepers – a shit-ton of priceless culture. It is, hands down, the finest "office" to work in on earth.
At the beginning I promised myself I'd never take it all for granted, but that vow was broken within weeks. Walking past the Queen's throne and gold-flecked glories every day? Pffft. Might as well be a supply cupboard in Basingstoke. Habit and hangovers do that to a man.
There are golf buggies provided for mobility access. Teenagers obviously need no persuasion to see how fast these things go. Answer: quite slow, as it happens.
MEALS FIT FOR A KING
Work hard, eat harder. Employees get free lunch, so the 30-minute break was spent cramming as much palace food into my mouth as possible. Masterchef even filmed part of a competition in there once.
TALL TALES WITH TOURISTS
You get asked lots of well-intentioned questions by punters because they've mistaken you for someone who knows meaningful information about the Palace. All you are given to satisfy their curiosity is a thin red book, containing mostly irrelevant facts for each section. (Did you know that the gravel on the Buckingham Palace forecourt gets cleaned daily? Did you?)
If I didn't know the answer, I'd stall and check this bible, while thinking up a guess or a lie. Just like when someone stops you on the street for directions, anything's better than that abject admission of failure, "I really don't know, sorry."
As weeks wore on, a game emerged between wardens of making up silly answers to difficult questions; the more ridiculous, the better. The best zinger I heard was that the Grand Ballroom electricity was powered by hamsters running underground on little wheels. God, we knew how to laugh.
YOU CAN'T SHAG ON THE THRONE
The salacious summer ends with a boat party on the Thames. The rumour was that the Buckingham Palace demob "do" used to be held in the palace until some horny couples started rutting on the throne.
So, everyone gets tarted up, pays £12 for a vodka and coke and realises London at night all looks the same. You stare into the cold river, knowing that, very soon, you'll be returning to university with a heavy heart and jaundiced skin.
You promise to maintain the lifelong friendships, but the memories of the best summer of your mediocre young life last much longer than the people, most of whom you never see again. Plus: you get to say you've done a shit at the Queen's house.
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